Snowpack reservoirs

Bumping Lake, the smallest of five water reservoirs serving Yakima Basin, at 39% of capacity on Dec. 23. The gate, when open, releases water into Bumping River that flows into the Naches River and then the Yakima River.

YAKIMA, Wash. — Washington’s snowpack is less than a year ago and eerily similar to the start of 2015, the state’s last big drought.

The statewide snowpack is 47% of normal. It was 46% of normal at this time five years ago.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center says the odds are good for temperatures slightly above normal through March. The outlook for precipitation is better than normal west of the Cascade crest and normal to the east.

“It’s very reminiscent of 2015, but this year we are way behind on mountain precipitation,” said Scott Pattee, state water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mount Vernon, Wash.

Five years ago at this time mountain precipitation was 130% of normal, but it was wet and warm. This year, it’s dry with precipitation at 67% of normal.

“It’s worrisome. It’s the third slowest start in snow accumulation statewide since the 1990s and we had one of the driest Novembers on record,” Pattee said.

The biggest concern is the five mountain reservoirs serving the Yakima Basin are significantly behind in recharging, and 130% to 135% of normal snowfall is now needed in the Upper Yakima to get it back to normal by April 1, he said.

Elsewhere, normal snowfall from here on out would mean 70 to 80% of normal snowpack by April 1, which would be survivable, he said.

As of Dec. 27, the five Yakima Basin reservoirs were at a combined 269,787 acre-feet of water, which was 25% of capacity and 61.5% of average, according to the Yakima office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

They were at 405,732 acre-feet and 38% of capacity on Jan. 1 a year ago.

It takes most of the reservoirs’ 1-million-acre-foot capacity and 700,000 acre-feet of water from mountain snowpack to meet the basin’s annual summer irrigation needs for 464,000 acres of farmland.

Inflow to the five reservoirs for the water year to date (Oct. 1 to Dec. 25) is 77% of average.

Precipitation at the reservoirs from Dec. 1 through Dec. 27 was 31 inches or 98% of average and 83% of the month’s average. Precipitation for the water year is 66.6 inches or 74% of average.

“This fall, we didn’t see the heavy rains that usually come in off the Pacific. The reservoirs really haven’t recovered like we would expect in a more normal year,” said Douglas Call, USBR Yakima River operator.

November is usually the basin’s biggest precipitation month, at 40 inches, but this year it was 10 inches, he said.

“When November gives us that kind of punch, it raises eyebrows, but we’ve been bailed out in the spring before,” Call said.

A lot of snow fell in Central Washington last February, but more impressively in the lowlands than the mountains, he said.

A warm body of water off the Gulf of Alaska, similar to five years ago, could be pushing weather around instead of through Washington, Call said.

“Cold temperatures are in place. We just don’t have the moisture,” he said.

A majority of the Cascades are 25 to 50% of normal snow water equivalent, Call said.

The highest NRCS SNOTEL (Snow Telemetry) site in the state, at Harts Pass about 20 miles northwest of Winthrop, is at 6,500 feet and is 66% of normal at 11.1 inches of snow water equivalent, half of last year.

Stampede Pass, at 4.8 inches of snow water equivalent, is one-third of what it should be, Call said. It’s a key point for weather approaching the Yakima Basin.

A bright spot is Sourdough Gulch in the Blue Mountains at 100% of normal.

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